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February 20, 2017
This is the first blog post in a two-part series on college mental health in the United States. The focus of this first post is college student suicide.
When I look back at college, I can say with utter certainty that “these were among the best days of my life”:
I was “independent” and “free” (both words I enjoyed using) and I considered myself unfettered by parental monitoring.
I forged new relationships.
I stayed out late.
I had meaningful and existentially provocative conversations with classmates.
I fell in love.
What’s not to like?
Ironically, it turns out that these very features of college – the unfettered independence and developmental exploration that I relished – can make college great for some young people, and at the same time can make college absolutely miserable for others.
When I was in college, there wasn’t much room for the miserable part. Universities acted like the emotional hardships of being away from home were unusual and rare and administrations largely ignored these issues.
Today, things have definitely changed.
Colleges acknowledge that students experience profound emotional struggles, but colleges have remained largely ill-equipped to help these students.
Let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the college mental health universe.
There are more opportunities for developmental growth than ever before. Colleges actively recognize the immense variety of ways that young people come of age. There are academic and extra-curricular offerings for people to explore who they are and what values they hold dear. This is especially the case for special programs designed to support women and minorities, programs that we never dreamed would occur as recently as 20 years ago.
We’re also seeing increasing drop-out rates, more powerful distractions from the online world, and greater academic and social expectations for students. Add to this the ever-growing financial challenges for students and parents and the decreased certainty of finding a job, and we have the cliché of the “perfect storm” for the emotional stress of higher education.
As we said above, despite great strides, colleges remain largely ill equipped to negotiate these complex psychosocial waters.
So, in this piece, we’d like to address some of the greatest psychological challenges facing universities and their students. This week we’re going to tackle the most disturbing and unsettling issue in college mental health – the possibility of deliberate self-harm and even suicide among university students.
We don’t want to be too alarmist. Although suicide attempts on college campuses do appear to be increasing, it is not the case that simply being in college means that someone will more likely consider suicide. However, because many psychiatric illnesses have their natural onset among college-aged individuals, students are at higher risks when these illnesses coincide with the college-related stressors we’ve outlined above.
Consider these statistics:
These are of course alarming statistics. Some have even called this a crisis. The most important question to ask, therefore, is this:
What can we do to improve the situation?
To answer this question, let’s start by looking at what we know about college suicide.
Attempts at suicide and death by suicide are most common in college students who:
We also know that students often tell others when they’re emotionally struggling, and that teachers, peers and resident assistants are more adept at recognizing emotional distress among struggling students.
Nevertheless, suicidal students often feel helpless, hopeless, and trapped. Some of these students resist seeking help because they’re ashamed. They might fear a “black mark” on their record or being judged by others. Even if they don’t have these concerns, they often don’t know what services are available.
Obviously, this is a complex and multi-faceted issue. We won’t be able to rectify this trend overnight. But there are steps we can take to ameliorate the risks. These include:
Because each college is unique, colleges must tailor these initiatives to their own circumstances, but the benefits of taking action cannot be underestimated. Colleges can literally save lives. They just have to act.
Examples of college webpages
Counseling & Psychological Services – University of Pennsylvania
Mental Health and Well-Being – Cornell University